The road is rarely easy when dealing with conflict at work. There will be times when colleagues won’t reciprocate your good-faith efforts at reconciliation. Or you’ll wonder why you always have to be the “adult in the room.” Or you’ll see glimmers of progress and you and a coworker will be getting along, only to have some organizational change or intense project prompt them to revert to their old ways. That’s why it’s critical to take care of yourself along the way. Whether you’re just starting to address the negativity or you’ve been trying to change things for years, your health and well-being should always be a priority. I want to share some tactics—including a few mantras—for preserving your mental health. My hope is that the advice here will buffer you from the damage that can result from unhealthy relationships.
Control the ‘Controllables’
No one likes to feel trapped in a bad situation. So take steps to increase feelings of control, even when you can’t change everything. Focus on the things that you do have the power to affect, no matter how insignificant they seem. What’s controllable might be fairly basic. Maybe you can’t dictate how your coworker treats you, but you can build up your defenses by getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, exercising, and spending time outside. I know that achieving this list of fundamentals can feel overwhelming at times; there are never enough hours in the day.
Start small, focusing on progress in one area, whether it’s increasing quality sleep or committing to a more consistent exercise routine. The more freedom you have over how you spend your time and energy, the less stuck you will feel. A friend was working at a health-care nonprofit for an insecure boss who micromanaged everything she did. She was able to tolerate her manager’s behavior because they worked remotely and she could more or less control when and how they interacted. Plus she felt like her manager’s foibles were worth enduring because she enjoyed the work and the job afforded her the flexibility she craved when her two boys were young. But as the kids got older, it got harder to put up with her manager. As the breadwinner in her family, she couldn’t quit, and her attempts to find a position that would give her all of the benefits and flexibility she wanted yielded no alternatives at first.
Rather than throwing up her hands, she started small, with what she dubbed the “coffee date offensive.” She began inviting friends and acquaintances out for coffee—virtually or in person. She didn’t know exactly where these conversations would lead, and she didn’t have a specific new job or company in mind, but taking this step gave her a sense of control. She’d end every conversation with the same question: “Is there anyone else you think I should meet with?” She tracked these exchanges in a spreadsheet along with notes about each meeting and to whom she’d been referred.
A year into this experiment, and after thirty-seven coffee dates(!), one of the people she met with early on reached out about an opening at his company. She landed the job. She was incredibly relieved to get away from her insecure manager, but she told me she was happy she didn’t rush into a new gig right away.
Venting can be a healthy way of relieving stress. Sharing your feelings in confidence (with someone you trust) will help prevent negative emotions from leaking into interactions with your colleague or into other parts of your life. Or consider venting in writing. Over the years, my friend and leadership expert Amy Jen Su has shared how journaling has helped her sort through her thoughts. It’s a habit I’ve now picked up.
Open a notebook or a blank document on your computer or phone and spend a preset amount of time, say four or five minutes, describing your feelings about a tough situation. Don’t overthink what you’re putting down; just document whatever comes to mind—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It might be helpful to refer to what you’ve written later. Noting how your emotions have evolved about the relationship can provide a sense of progress. Conversely, it might feel good to delete or get rid of your notes in a symbolic gesture of putting the situation behind you and moving on.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Getting Along: How To Work With Anyone (Even Difficult People) by Amy Gallo